Stanford students, alumni help each other with their startup dreams

StartX provides floor space, advice and camaraderie to Stanford-affiliated entrepreneurs.

L.A. Cicero David Geeter, Dan Ha and Cameron Teitelman

StartX Associate Director David Geeter, left, works in a corner of the accelerator's office with co-founders Dan Ha and Cameron Teitelman.

Dorm-room tycoons splitting time between lectures and investor meetings. Caffeinated engineering students discussing development strategies in communal kitchenettes. Since the '80s, the gritty image of the Stanford entrepreneur has been a staple of Silicon Valley's self-made mythos.

But the romanticizing of hardscrabble multitasking threatens to obscure just how hardscrabble it really is – failure rates of Silicon Valley startups are notoriously high, and balancing a new company with schoolwork can leave little time for anything else.

Plus, as Laura Borel, BA '10, MS '11, founder of the restaurant search service ByteBite, explained: "Startups can get a little bit lonely."

StartX is looking to make this path a little easier. StartX is a startup accelerator, reserved for Stanford-affiliated entrepreneurs and run by Stanford Student Enterprises, a division of the student government. Now led by Cameron Teitelman and Dan Ha, both 2010 graduates, the program is on the tail end of its first full-time summer session at new AOL-provided offices. On Sept. 8, it will unveil its 12 newest companies before a Valley audience.

The program supports the efforts of student government to give Stanford students experience in entrepreneurship.

The StartX offices are something between a student union and a dot-com pad, with dry-erase marker writing on the whiteboard walls and rows on rows of young founders at their laptops. These surroundings are offered free to the students – the program provides floor space, web hosting and legal support.

"If these are the best founders out there," said Ha, "then they deserve to have the resources to start their own company."

Still, the most valuable service StartX offers is less tangible.

"We came for the office space," said Brenden Millstein, MBA '10, MS '11, founder of Carbon Lighthouse, a StartX-supported company that advises institutions on how to reduce their carbon footprint. "But we're hoping to stay for the community."

Community-building and mentorship are a large part of what StartX does. Stanford alumni who have successfully founded companies can receive free office space in exchange for acting as advisors to newer founders. If students have questions about a specific aspect of business development, StartX staff sets up meetings with a network of established Silicon Valley players who have signed on as official program mentors.

"One of the major benefits is just being in the room with some of the top founders at Stanford," said David Geeter, BS '11, associate director of StartX.

Students are accepted to one of the program's three yearly sessions after a competitive application process. The selectivity ensures what Julienne Lam, a Stanford psychology undergraduate and co-founder of the StartX-supported scheduling application Class Owl, calls "a community that's constantly pushing you to do more."

Drawing from the Stanford pool has given StartX an unusually varied portfolio of startups. Current companies run the gamut from Qwhispr, a social network search engine, to Kitchit, an online marketplace for private chefs, to 6dot, which produces a Braille labeling device. But despite the diversity of interests, new entrepreneurs are encouraged to share their experiences with their fellow business folk.

"People have questions and, if they ask around, there's someone else who's dealt with it," said Beatrice Pang, MBA '10, co-founder of the luxury goods networking site ModeWalk. "In general, it's just a very mutually supportive network."

StartX also provides counseling to aspiring Stanford entrepreneurs who don't win a spot in the program. Students whose proposals are rejected receive detailed comments to help them prepare for the next application round.

Current StartX members have gone through this process: 6dot co-founder and mechanical engineering graduate student Karina Pikhart initially applied to SSE Labs in 2010. A year later, StartX accepted her second application. "I think the interview panel really appreciated our resilience," she said.

StartX is looking to encourage a new generation of founders with two upcoming Demo Days, where the new companies unveil their products. A ticketed event on Sept. 8 will be directed at StartX mentors and alumni, as well as interested members of the Silicon Valley business community. The event also will be streamed live. StartX will hold a second, free event for Stanford students at Dinkelspiel Auditorium on Oct. 1, featuring startup speakers, product demos and opportunities for students to become more involved with the program.

"Our biggest value-added for the Stanford community is telling the stories of our founders," explained Geeter. "We want to show that entrepreneurship doesn't have to be a black box."

Max McClure is an intern at the Stanford News Service.